Engineering a change in Ottawa attitudes toward STEM

Telecom giant Ciena offers teen girls hands-on experience with network technology in hope of inspiring a new generation of female tech specialists
Students at a Ciena session
Students at a Ciena session

Marie Fiala believes she has a solution to Ottawa’s chronic shortage of tech talent that doesn’t require looking beyond Canada’s borders for qualified engineers and programmers.

A marketing expert at tech giant Ciena’s west-end campus, Ms. Fiala says Canada has an abundant and often overlooked resource that could go a long way toward eliminating the problem: a female population that historically has been drastically underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Why not tap into half the Canadian population and educate them?” she says. “We’ve got that talent right here.”

She knows the statistics on women in STEM fields, and they’re not encouraging. In 2014, women accounted for just a quarter of the total number of students enrolled in Canadian post-secondary mathematics, computer and information sciences programs. In engineering and related technologies, the figure was even lower – a mere 19 per cent of university and college students in those fields were women.

A year ago, a group of Ciena’s Ottawa workers came up with an idea to encourage more females to enter fields of study related to technology that have traditionally been dominated by men. They organized an event last June called “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” inviting about two dozen girls in Grades 6, 7 and 8 at various local middle schools – many of them daughters of Ciena employees – to tour the company’s Carling Avenue labs and gain hands-on experience at tasks such as building electronic circuits.

“We wanted to reach out to girls when they’re still young and get them inspired and interested in STEM-related subjects,” says organizer May Lee, a director of project management at Ciena who started at the company as a software developer. “That’s an age group where their interests start to solidify. We also wanted to reach out to them before they started selecting courses in high school.”

The company has since hosted two more similar events, partnering with D.A. Moodie Intermediate School for a day-long session in mid-November that attracted more than 30 girls from that school and others and another in February that drew more than two dozen students, mostly from All Saints Catholic High School in Kanata.

Organizers say the girls’ reaction is almost universally positive. In surveys after the events, more than 90 per cent of participants said the sessions increased their interest in studying STEM fields.

“When we bring the (circuit) kits up, a lot of the girls will say, ‘My brother has this kit,’” says Michelle Gardiner, an R&D hardware program manager at Ciena and another one of the organizers.

“But it’s something that they’ve never thought (about), or even their parents have never thought to have them play with it. And as soon as they get their hands on it, they are so excited about it. We need to do more to encourage girls, inspire them to look at engineering or STEM-related topics. I had one girl even say she always thought engineering was too hard for her. But then after spending a day at Ciena, it was something that really excited her. It changed her mind.”

Ms. Lee, who has a bachelor of commerce degree from Concordia University with a major in business technology management, says girls are subtly encouraged from the time they are toddlers to conform to gender stereotypes that steer them away from science-related fields.

“The toys we buy for girls are dolls,” she says. “And yet for boys, we buy them construction kits.”

 

“We need to do more to encourage girls, inspire them to look at engineering or STEM-related topics. I had one girl even say she always thought engineering was too hard for her. But then after spending a day at Ciena, it was something that really excited her.”

As an example to prove her point, she notes the electronic circuit kits used in Ciena’s sessions are readily available at stores around Ottawa, yet most participants had never tried them before.

“These are kits that we bought from a toy store. They’re not difficult to find. And yet the girls, it’s their first exposure for them to play with these type of kits.”

The program’s success has inspired the company to introduce it at other locations as well. Similar events are being planned at Ciena offices in Montreal and Ireland and the firm recently hosted sessions at its facilities in Georgia and Mexico.   

Ms. Gardiner, who holds a degree in electronics engineering technology and has been working for Ciena since 2010, says she also hopes the sessions show adolescent girls they don’t have to be “computer geeks” to succeed in the tech world.  

“It doesn’t have to be the stereotypical gamer in the basement,” she says. “There’s kind of a preconception that if you’re not coding and hacking away, you don’t fit in to a high-tech environment. But that’s not true.”